The Best Version of Death Note is a Musical

Death Note might be the most 2000s thing ever made. The story, about a teen genius who finds a notebook that will let him kill people from afar and promptly develops a god complex, was an enormous hit in Japan and the United States and the original manga became an anime, two light novels, three live-action films, and two Nintendo DS games before the decade was out. The height of Death Note’s popularity coincided with both the US and Japan feeling the tensions leading up to the Great Recession, and both still reeling from shocking incidents of public violence not a decade old: Columbine and 9/11 in the US, and the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack in Japan. Additionally, US anime fans who’d been children as anime hit basic cable were aging into disaffected teens, Death Note‘s ideal audience. I would know, because I was one of them.

It makes perfect sense that teens facing the prospect of a completely tanked job market and the regular awareness that their friends and siblings were potentially being blown up in a war started on false pretenses would gravitate toward a story that read a lot like a power fantasy. For all that Light Yagami is ostensibly a villain protagonist who gets it in the end, much of the story is built around sitting in his perspective and cheering on his mind games with detective L. Like with its contemporary Breaking Bad, you couldn’t trip without running across a forum user opining about how Light Was Right. And the fact that Japan’s criminal justice system has an incredibly high conviction rate further opens questions of just how much the audience is expected to sympathize with Light’s stance — in thirty-seven episodes of opining, there’s not much consideration that he might be killing the wrongly accused, for example.

Death Note

This all may come down to the fact that Death Note, for all the hype it received of being deep and philosophical, ran in Shonen Jump, a magazine primarily aimed at teenagers. That’s not to say middle grade and younger YA fiction can’t be deep, but it explains a lot about Death Note’s tendency for showy, memorable posturing that often gets distracted by its own fantastical leaps of Rube Goldbergian logic. In fact, getting caught on the series’ desire to sound smart distracts from one of its most clever structural elements: the fact that it basically is a typical Shonen Jump manga, shifted to read from the villain’s perspective. That sleight of hand disguises fresh-faced detective Matsuda, who bears all the hallmarks of a typical Jump protagonist but is framed as bumbling rather than admirable, until the story’s memorable ending rears its head.

Looking back on its from a modern perspective, the things that caught viewers’ eyes about Death Note have aged somewhat poorly: putting aside the style-over-substance issue, which has as much to do with fandom overhype as the writing itself, the writing is notoriously misogynistic. Every single female character introduced winds up dead, and those that are introduced as competent will at some point be dressed down by the men in their lives. This is particularly glaring in the case of Misa, initially introduced as an intellectual rival to Light who used her idol persona as a cover but quickly downgraded into a jealous, bubble-headed pawn following the plans Light lays out for her. And, of course, there was the infamous change in antagonists that deflated the series’ tension for many. These things make it difficult to recommend the series all these years later despite its status as a historically popular title. But they also make the existence of the Death Note musical that much more of a pleasant surprise. 

Once More, With Feeling

Death Note: The Musical was an odd duck right from the start. The rights holders tapped American composer Frank Wildhorn to write the show’s music in 2013. As such, the musical numbers were written first in English, performed in English for a staged reading and concept album in 2014, and then translated for the show’s Japanese stage premiere in 2015. It’s neither a better nor worse choice than the many anime stage musicals made in Japan, but it does give the show a more Broadway-adjacent soundscape. And for English-speaking listeners, there’s a ready-made version that doesn’t require subtitles or liner notes.

The soundtrack boasts multiple standouts, particularly Shinigami Ryuk and Rem’s introduction “Only Human” (which I listened to maybe thirty times while writing this article), the minor-key duet “Mortals and Fools,” and the final confrontation of “The Way it Ends.” Like one of Wildhorn’s other big successes, Jekyll & Hyde, it has trouble making some of its more minor numbers memorably distinct, and the climactic “When Love Comes” is a total misfire, saddling poor Rem’s declaration of devotion to Misa with an out of place country twang. But overall, it’s solid stuff. It’s certainly much, much better than anyone would think at hearing the words “Death Note Musical.”  

The biggest surprise, though, is the show’s script. A full decade of reflection has been nothing but good for the source material, but it isn’t just that — Netflix’s take on the story managed to be a trash-fire of wasted potential despite coming out in 2017. No, what makes the musical work is that it knows where to shift the emphasis of its story, despite not being allowed to make many out-and-out revisions.

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Death Note: The Musical

When Love Comes

The writing of the musical does two extremely important things: it shifts its focus to give dignity to certain sidelined characters, and it streamlines the ending.

The original Death Note is a rather nihilistic work. Noble characters talk about love and sacrifice, but both Light and L dismiss those things as less important than their intellectual battle — and because the writing is so caught up in showing how cool that battle of wits is, it creates an accidental chilling effect for the audience as well: rather than the dissenting voices of empathy against the villain, characters with emotional attachments tend to die for them, either accomplishing nothing or playing into Light’s schemes. And in the end, Light himself is helpless before the fickle whims of Death itself. The extra volume of the manga, How to Read, put an extra flourish on this by conclusively stating that in this universe of explicit supernatural occurrences, human beings still return to nothingness upon death. It’s downright gleefully bleak about the meaninglessness of its world, wherein the average individual is the inevitable helpless plaything of intellectual übermenschen and the gods themselves.  

But because a musical is all about putting characters’ emotions in the forefront through song, the empathetic characters and their arcs are given weight equal to the mental tennis between the leads. Light’s father Soichiro, voice of the justice system, becomes the Fortinbras-esque witness to the final bloodbath. Rem, now a character from the very beginning, becomes the emotional turning point for the entire plot. It’s still a case of pining Dead Lesbians, but in a story where almost every character ends tragically her subplot stands out as the voice of what makes life itself worthwhile. And Misa, in the show’s final moments, honors Rem’s remains rather than implicitly killing herself over Light’s death.

Cut the Boredom

Speaking of that climactic death, the play excises the latter portions of the series with L’s proteges altogether. Instead, it collapses episode 25 and the series finale into a single event. Light is able to successfully write L’s name and orchestrate an apparent suicide, only for Ryuk to decide — in what I very much hope is a knowing wink to the audience — that things won’t be fun anymore without Light’s intellectual equal. The revelation reduces Light to the pathetic, self-interested worm he always was in his final moments, and the juxtaposition of those images directly against one another nails the intended weight of Light-as-villain in a way the original series ultimately lost track of. And because it’s followed by Soichiro and Misa being left behind, it’s Light’s god complex that comes across as petty. For all his talk of justice, he built an empire with himself at the center and left nothing meaningful behind for it. Even Misa, despite following the same basic plot beats, is given more dignity by way of being allowed to express herself through song.

It’s good shit, boiling the story down to its most compelling elements and reframing them in a way that doesn’t feel like the writers are continuously patting themselves on the back. It’s a great version of the story for someone wanting to revisit an old friend from a very dark future, and one that was thankfully preserved not just through the concept album but a filmed staging that was aired on Japanese TV. While Netflix’s hot take on the material got caught up in sympathizing with an American Light’s perspective at a time when white male terrorists are ever-visibly on the rise, the musical had the guts to remember that it was fundamentally telling a tragedy. 

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